AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Land Commissioner George P. Bush and his little-known but powerful agency, Texas’ General Land Office, joined a lawsuit Tuesday suing the federal government for what the suit calls an unconstitutional seizure of land.
Filed last month by seven landowning families, the lawsuit accuses the federal Bureau of Land Management of a “blatant land grab” involving a 116-mile tract along the Red River that marks the border between Texas and Oklahoma, but whose waters have shifted for decades — raising ownership and demarcation questions.
“Unfortunately, with this president and with this bureaucracy composed of unelected folks, we can’t leave this to chance,” Bush — whose grandfather and uncle were president and whose father, Jeb, is seeking the 2016 GOP White House nomination — told The Associated Press.
If the Bureau of Land Management gets its way, 113 acres of public land could fall under federal control and, unchecked, the agency could set a precedent that jeopardizes Texas’ entire 13 million acres of public territory, Bush said.
The lawsuit, which his office joined in a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, “sends a clear message that the federal government shouldn’t be in the business of seeking to claim ownership over the state’s assets,” he said.
Three Texas counties and a county sheriff’s office also have filed motions to join.
In 2009, Bush’s office argues, the Bureau of Land Management published a survey asserting federal ownership of a small portion of land south of a Red River boundary that was defined by a 1923 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Then the bureau published a 2014 map indicating its intent to use the same method applied in the 2009 survey to a 116-mile stretch of Red River land, the office said.
The Bureau of Land Management says it is committed to “working with adjacent landowners, counties and other stakeholders through our ongoing planning process to properly identify the extent of federal holdings in the Red River.”
“We share the interest of all parties in clarifying ownership and identifying appropriate management alternatives,” spokeswoman Donna Hummel said in a statement.
Gov. Greg Abbott has praised the families bringing the lawsuit “for standing up against the federal government’s brazen attempt to take private property from Texans.”
Bush’s office says it’s suing as if it were a private landholder. It administers Texas’ public lands and collects royalties from energy firms that lease them for oil and natural gas exploration — revenue which helps cover some public education costs.
No oil and gas exploration is taking place on the land in question, making placing a dollar value on it difficult. Bush said it’s too early to say what joining the suit might cost his agency.
He also shrugged off questions about the political optics of seeking to sue the Obama administration in the midst of his father’s presidential campaign.
“Probably my most important responsibility is to generate as much revenue for the school children of Texas in an environmentally responsible way,” Bush said. “And when this entity comes and challenges that authority, I have to respond.”